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Christmas Bird Count to hit Hampton

| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Daniel Kelch
This is a yellow-bellied sapsucker, an elusive species that local birdwatchers say are rare to see.
Kyle Selcer
Duquesne University biology professor Brady Porter of Hampton, left, annually leads students and amateur birders, like Bobbi Diller of Hampton, administrative assistant for the university’s pharmacy department, through undeveloped areas of Hampton to record different species for the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.

Grab a pen and paper, and then look out your kitchen window.

“What you see is what you got. Just write it down,” said outdoorsman Al Werling, 54, of Hampton, longtime compiler of local bird sightings during the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.

The 24-hour event is set locally for Dec. 28.

“You make a note of the marks, the coloration, the shape of the beak, if the bird is bigger than a robin, smaller than a robin, if it hangs upside down, if it's with several others that look like it,” Werling said.

Anyone can participate in the upcoming bird count by reporting whatever bird species one sees and the quantity of each species.

“You can go down to Kmart and buy a $20 pair of plastic binoculars just to get a better look at the birds at your bird feeder,” Werling said.

Werling announced the Dec. 28 bird count at a recent meeting of Hampton Council to solicit participants and alert the Hampton Police Department about what might appear to be unusual activity by folks prowling through local fields and forests.

“I've been pulled over ‘owl-ing' at 4 in the morning,” said Werling, compiler of the Christmas Bird Count in Hampton for more than 10 years.

“I start out at midnight, and I walk down to my buddy's farm and listen for owls, and I usually get great horned owls in that period of time,” Werling said.

The next afternoon, Werling listens for screech owls and looks for the flocks of birds that regularly roost on utility wires near local bridges over the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

He also visits Hodil Farm on Harts Run Road to look for great blue herons and belted kingfishers near the farm's large pond and network of creeks.

Blue jays, robins and house sparrows are among the 33 species of birds mostly commonly seen this time of year in metropolitan Pittsburgh, according to the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

Extremely rare are Baltimore orioles, red-winged blackbirds and gray catbirds.

Werling personally hopes to see a certain woodpecker.

“I have never seen a yellow-bellied sapsucker live,” Werling said. “They are all around. I can see their marks ... They're distinctive in what they do to trees, and they are right in my backyard, and I have never seen one.”

Ironically, Brady Porter of Hampton recently saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker during a bird count in South Buffalo Township, Armstrong County.

Like Werling, Porter expects to rise before dawn on Dec. 28 to count owls in Hampton.

Porter, a professor at biological sciences at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, plans to identify and quantify the birds by broadcasting recorded owl calls from his backyard in the Northwood Acres housing plan off Mt. Royal Boulevard. He expects a handful of Duquesne graduate students to join him.

“Actually, we use an iPhone app, basically, and hook it into a speaker and project screech owls, and great horned owls and barred owls,” said Porter, 45. “The best way to owl is to call and listen for a response.”

After sunrise, Porter and his students will walk nearly six miles to count birds near the train tracks that loosely parallel Pine Creek through undeveloped areas of Hampton, including Bryant Road, where they often see red-tailed, Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks.

Porter and his students annually report 23 to 29 bird species and about 300 birds sighted in Hampton during the Christmas Bird Count.

“It's a good time to get into birding because you have a limited number of species, and most of them come readily to feeders,” said Porter, who has been counting birds at Christmas in Hampton since 2006.

This time of year, one also can rely on one's eyes, rather than one's ears, to identify different birds, according to Porter.

“As you build your birding skills, a lot of what you do is by ear,” he said. “Most of these birds are only calling — they're not singing this time of year, so sound is less important than it might be in springtime.”

Hampton also is a good place to view a variety of bird species because the township offers everything from deciduous forests and clusters of hemlock pines to ponds with protective cattails and plentiful backyards with bird feeders.

“It's a real mix of habitats,” Porter said. “So there's a diversity of species.”

Hampton is one of 13 geographical areas included in the annual Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

The society's online site — — lists the names of local bird-count compilers, such as Werling, and their phone numbers. Other areas include Shaler, Fox Chapel, North Park and Ross-McCandless.

To report bird sightings on Dec. 28 in Hampton, call Werling at 412-487-8581.

To volunteer to help Porter count birds in Hampton, call 412-337-7397.

Deborah Deasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6369 or

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